Virtual Worlds: A Few of This Season's Instant Classics

One of the few happy developments here at the end of all book culture has been the vigorous republication of out-of-print marvels by the New York Review of Books crowd under the imprint NYRB Classics. Among the mid-century delights they've restored in sturdy, handsome paperbacks number titles always at the top of my list when any conversation turns to book recommendations: Oakley Hall's majestic western Warlock, Elaine Dundy's brisk and heartbroke comedy The Dud Avocado, Elizabeth Hardwick's sharp-elbowed stories of boho New York, and Frans G. Bengtsson's grandly aimless Viking saga The Long Ships, whose lead raider surely sets the record for the literary character most often converted to new religions of convenience.

The NYRB books division is itself undergoing a conversion, one that — like that pillager's religious ones — is equal parts hopeful and pragmatic. With Lindsay Clarke's excellent novel The Water Theatre ($9.99), the first book from the NYRB Lit line of contemporary originals, these most ink-stained of publishers are leaving print behind altogether: The Water Theatre is only available as an e-book.

It's an auspicious start, a book about international politics and memory-haunted relationships. War correspondent Martin Crowther, shaken by what he's seen in Africa, slinks off to Italy to deliver an important message to a woman he hasn't seen in years. From there, Clarke's story crosses continents, decades, genres. It's a love story, a global tragedy, a fathers-and-sons drama, and an apologia for the ways that well-meaning yet flawed people fail to save the world. It's a better book than you're likely used to e-reading, and exulting about it led me into some holes in our language. "You'll be hooked as soon as you hit the passage about the lightning between 0 and 1 percent," I said, five minutes in. The bedroom scene at 17 is better, but neither has stuck with me as much as the grieving around 74.

Speaking of the economic travails of a nation that fancies itself the globe's most best-est, in Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense About the Economy (Public Affairs Books; $24.99), the Bay Area's Anat Shenker-Osorio offers one choice bit of advice: Stop talking about the economy like it's a tide that lifts, a body that ails, or an invisible hand that guides our collective fortune like whatever it is that moves the Ouija thing. And saying "time is money" conditions us to conceive of time as something that must be shrewdly spent or hoarded. Shenker-Osorio's diagnosis is to stop thinking of the economy as some organic and independent system that we can only affect by prescriptions — or bloodletting. Instead, she contends, we should consider it a construction that we can control, something concrete and knowable that works for us rather than vice versa. The book is thick with bloggy asides and pop-culture examples, some of which feel like padding, but there's no escaping the sharp critique at the center.

Metaphor is a hell of a weapon in Dan Josefson's debut That's Not a Feeling (Soho, $15.95), a troubled-young-folks-away-at-school novel brighter, darker, and more hilarious than any half-dozen first novels all smooshed together. A likable monster named Aubrey rules over Roaring Orchards, a "therapeutic" boarding school in upstate New York. There, in batshit monologues, he convinces parents that their children are something like wily ol' Zeus in a myth of the book's own invention: Zeus tries to seduce a nymph, the nymph changes into a turtle to avoid Zeus, Zeus then transforms himself into a toddler, approaches the turtle, and has a go at her, swan-on-Leda style — except this time it's infant-on-turtle, a coupling Aubrey has commemorated in statue form right there on the Roaring Orchards campus as a reminder: "Inside each of your children is a god," he says. "It means we must be more vigilant, not less!"

The school, then, is the strangest of inventions. Josefson's kids, though, are all too real: cutters and runaways and addicts and suicides, presented with dry comedy and deep — sometimes detached — feeling. But Josefson applies empathy to the school's students, staff, and parents, all of whom come under Aubrey's mad sway, and any of whose lives can become the focus of the novel — through Benjamin, our sublimated narrator — at any time. The result is a funny, humane, egalitarian, and gently challenging book, one to quote and roar over, and one that gets better and stranger as it goes.

 
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